Navy changes policies on domestic violence

Navy and law enforcement officials on Whidbey Island are changing the way domestic violence cases are being handled.

At least that’s the plan.

Deputies with the Island County Sheriff’s Department are going to become “more involved” in cases that involve active-duty military who commit domestic assaults at base housing in the Ault Field Road area, according to James Campbell, the supervisory special agent for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service on Whidbey.

He said there will be “a trial period” to see how things go. Previously, Navy security handled all domestic violence cases when a military people was the offender and local law enforcement handled them when the aggressor was a civilian.

In addition, Campbell said he’s working on setting up an investigative domestic violence unit on the base. It would be based on a model created by NCIS in Norfolk, Virg., five years ago.

Sheriff Mike Hawley said he’s been frustrated for years with a system that treats people in the military differently than civilians. The main problem, he said, is that there’s no domestic violence laws — only general assaults — in federal statutes.

“It’s a major glaring fault in the system,” Hawley said. “There’s a real frustration with the federal statutes. They don’t have much teeth and they don’t protect victims. There are no restraining orders, no mandatory arrests.”

In contrast, he said, state laws can be very effective in dealing with domestic crimes.

Campbell pointed out the irony that the Lautenberg Amendment — to federal gun laws — prohibits people who are convicted of domestic assault from owning guns, even though there is no “domestic violence” in federal law.

But there seems to be a little confusion between the Sheriff’s Office and NCIS. Campbell said there will be “more of a collaboration” between county deputies and Navy security in dealing with sailors who beat their loved ones. Hawley, however, sent out a memo to deputies explaining they will assume all domestic violence cases, if Navy security requests, inside the Langley gate.

Campbell said the details of how much the deputies will be doing are still being worked out.

It’s won’t mean a big increase in calls for deputies. Hawley said he expects one or two cases a month.

Officers with the Oak Harbor Police also respond to calls in Navy housing — the Seaplane base area — along with base security. Chief Steve Almon said NCIS contacted him about the possibility of his officers taking over domestic cases.

“I have absolutely no reservation to doing it,” he said. “Our officers have better training to deal with domestic violence and we can ensure more consistent treatment.”

But there’s still a question of whether a military person who commits a domestic assault on federal land can be tried in civilian court. Campbell said Navy Region Northwest is looking into the issue.

“Civilian court is possible,” he said. “It’s will likely depend on the situation. ... On a case by case basis.”

In the military justice system, the decision of whether to court martial a military person for a crime is up to the person’s commanding officer.

Hawley said the issue of how domestic violence cases are handled on the base came to a head recently with two fatalities. Last fall, a man shot and killed his girlfriend, a Navy woman, in base housing. This summer a Navy man was shot by police while he was stabbing his wife in Oak Harbor.

“They had a prior history on base that weren’t dealt with properly,” Hawley said.

According to Campbell, the domestic violence unit will be trained to deal with the always-sensitive domestic cases, including child abuse and sexual assaults involving family members. It would to made up of NCIS agents and Navy security personnel.

Whatever the specifics are, victim advocates say that any increased collaborations between law enforcement and the Navy is welcome.

“It’s going to be a good thing for our clients,” said Erika Sanders, program manager for Citizens Against Domestic and Sexual Abuse. “There’s a lot of fear wrapped up in the Navy, when it all stays in the military system. People are nervous about reporting things to the Navy, about affecting people’s careers.”

Sanders said she expects an increase in referrals to CADA if civilian law enforcement starts handling domestic violence cases.

“It’s a good move,” she said. “We’re excited about it.”

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